It’s hard to believe that this time last year I was writing about the exciting launch of The Fire Within – Wigan’s cultural manifesto culminating in a unique exhibition space in the centre of Wigan.
Little did I know then that our plans would be put on hold so that we could respond to a worldwide health pandemic. While our attention may have been temporarily diverted, the fire in our hearts is stronger than ever.
During lockdown our local cultural sector has provided a lifeline to many, with our local film society distributing free movie packs to the socially isolated and others providing virtual classes to keep people engaged. We started thinking differently too, by hosting virtual events, such as the annual Pride event, which was streamed live from our exhibition space.
Our music scene was beginning to peak with home-grown bands starting to get noticed. Wigan was and is still becoming a hotbed of musical talent. Even the Mayor of Greater Manchester was impressed, giving a special mention to the band LYNCHS when choosing his ‘Band of the Month’ on Twitter.
The Lathums – a regular fixture on the festival scene – and Lottery Winners also descend from Wigan and it has been amazing for me, and our dedicated culture team, to watch them flourish – literally. I’ve watched many of them play at our amazing gig venues.
The doors to The Fire Within were closed in March, like many other cultural venues.
We’re lucky that our doors will reopen as soon as it is safe to do so, whereas some doors will be closed forever. With social distancing now engrained in our day-to-day lives, many organisations will struggle to generate sufficient income.
Although some of our cultural partners have been able to deliver work digitally, this is not a long-term fix. Many of the region’s professionals were placed on furlough and many have been unable to deliver any work.
This is detrimental to our communities. We know there are significant economic, social and health benefits to cultural activity. In Wigan borough, our groups are in the heart of communities and strive to engage with those who wouldn’t ordinarily choose to visit museums or go to performances.
Following the sad news that city centre venues including the Deaf Institute and Gorilla are closing due to the effects of the pandemic, it’s extremely important to reassure artists and organisations, showing them that there is light at the end of the uncertainty.
The Greater Manchester Combined Authority cultural fund has invested millions of pounds to help organisations become more sustainable during this time. And, although we welcome the £1.57bn national fund, we need to understand how it will be distributed.
We know it will be used to re-start work on heritage construction projects alongside supporting national cultural institutions, but we can’t forget about grass-roots practitioners.
Greater Manchester is home to the second largest cluster of creative industries outside London and the South East, so the importance of national support is really put into perspective.
While we wait for more detail, in Wigan borough we have set up our own cultural fund to support freelancers who have been severely affected by COVID-19.
Some artists were not eligible for other government funding streams, so we set up a £30,000 fund offering grants between £500 and £1,500 in order to safeguard our borough’s amazing talent.
But we can’t provide grants to everyone, which is why it’s imperative that government funding caters for local authorities and supplements the work we’re already doing.
We remain committed to investing in this key sector and will adapt our five year plan, The Fire Within, to suit these current times.
Launched in 2019, The Fire Within, outlines our collaborative approach with the cultural industry and the community to engage more people with the arts.
Split into five themes, each representing a year in the plan, our innovative strategy was brought to life with a physical exhibition of the same name in one of our shopping centres.
After a successful first year focusing on ‘Wigan’s Future Artists’ we geared up for the launch of year two – ‘Digital Wigan’.
And, although this theme resonates with current times, we will adapt our approach in line with social distancing guidelines.
A refreshed exhibition will be launched in September called We Will Always Be Together and will be complemented with online activity exploring how technology has impacted the arts over the years.
Our cultural agenda will play a key role in how Wigan borough recovers from COVID-19.
Yes, we were on the cusp of something special before the pandemic hit us, but that fire and drive hasn’t gone away. It has been intensified by a passion to do more and to think differently.
Alison McKenzie-Folan is the chief executive of Wigan MBC
For more information about The Fire Within visit www.thefirewithin.org.uk